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Coronavirus Outbreak

Omicron in Iran: "We're Burying Our Heads in the Sand"

February 18, 2022
Pouyan Khoshhal
6 min read
With the sixth peak of coronavirus infections in Iran thought to be weeks away, no restrictions have been tabled to curb the spread
With the sixth peak of coronavirus infections in Iran thought to be weeks away, no restrictions have been tabled to curb the spread
"Even a small child understands that schools should be closed when the number of hospital patients and the rate of transmission is this high"
"Even a small child understands that schools should be closed when the number of hospital patients and the rate of transmission is this high"

Health officials believe the sixth wave of coronavirus infections in Iran is now close to reaching the peak. The Health Ministry anticipates the daily number of newly-detected cases will soon top 100,000, driven in large part by the Omicron variant; the dearth of testing in Iran means this is probably only the tip of the iceberg. As yet, however, the government and National Coronavirus Taskforce have not indicated any repeat restrictions could be on the way.

Simultaneously, a mobile phone app that used a color-coded system to indicate different levels of contagion in Iran’s cities and provinces has stopped operating. The team from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology that developed the program said the Ministry of Health had stopped sending them the relevant patient data.

The app, named Mask, also had other useful functions for Iranian citizens. People could upload and check the infection status of others around them, and could also look up the vaccination status of certain local and top-tier officials. It was the Mask app, for instance, that revealed Mohammad Mokhber, Iran’s first vice president, had not received a jab.

The decision to stop sending data to Mask – and also to freeze the above-mentioned feature – came in the run-up to February 11: the annual day of nationwide, state-encouraged public rallies to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. With only a small dose of cynicism given the way the first outbreak was handled in 2020, some observers believe the app was deliberately disabled in a bid to give more people the confidence to join the crowds.

Now only the Health Ministry has access to the data needed to report the Covid-19 situation in different cities. The latest published statistics put 247 cities in Iran on “red alert”, ranking 112 as “orange” and 89 as “yellow”. Hamid Souri, head of the working group for prevention at the National Coronavirus Taskforce, has previously told IranWire the system was “fundamentally wrong from the beginning”. He also lamented the absence of an alternative.

Why Not Close Schools?

Health officials say the Omicron variant has been most detected in young people and children, where the vaccination rate is slightly lower than that of older age groups. As yet there is no indication that schools will close.

"Even a small child understands that schools should be closed when the number of hospital patients and the rate of transmission is this high," Shervin Shokouhi, head of the infectious disease department at Tehran's Loghman Hospital, told IranWire. "The schools must be closed. There’s no acceptable argument against it. Specialists, experts and doctors have raised this issue a hundred times on radio and television and in the media, but no one seems to hear them.”

Other countries battered by Omicron during the winter months have taken different positions on how best to handle it. Some European countries imposed fresh, short-term lockdowns, and China is pursuing a controversial zero-Covid policy. But others, such as the UK, remained largely open until cases began to subside.

"It seems the policy being pursued here is that of ‘living with Covid’,” Shokouhi said. “But this has to be flexible. When the number of patients rises, control should be established, and when the condition improves, the previous policies can be reinstated. The current measures were reasonable two or three months ago because the number of hospitalizations was low. But we predicted the current situation over and over again.”

Shokouhi believes the delay in imposing any fresh restrictions is tied to the country’s economic situation. But this too, in his view, is deplorable: “If they were running the country properly, we could have managed the situation. But what single thing in this country is being run properly? Even wedding parties are allowed now, which is stupid. Everything should be being considered as a whole, but ‘Now it’s the time for the holidays’. The prognosis is clear, but we’re burying our heads in the sand.”

Vaccines vs. ‘Herd Immunity’

The idea of letting the virus run rampant through the population until most people attain “natural immunity” from exposure was floated by then-President Hasan Rouhani at the start of the pandemic. The idea has since been discounted by most serious scientists and governments because of how lethal it could be for the most vulnerable, and because SARS-CoV-2 infection does not confer permanent or even long-lasting immunity on a person.

Shokouhi noted: "Even in the few weeks since Omicron first arrived in this country, some people have contracted Covid-19 several times over. This means herd immunity is not the solution we’re looking for.”

As such the question remains how far the population can be vaccinated, and with what type of product. First vice president Mohammad Mokhber, the (unvaccinated) former head of Setad – the conglomerate that made Iran’s CovIran-Barekat vaccine –  has repeatedly stated that in future the public will be able to choose any type of vaccine they want, “like in a supermarket”.  

But for the past 12 months, the less efficacious Sinopharm has been the most widely-available vaccine in Iran, followed by sporadically-donated quantities of Sputnik and AstraZeneca. The long-awaited vaccine jointly developed by Iran’s Pasteur Institute and Cuba, “Pasto-Covac” and “Pasto-Covac Plus”, recently became available in Iran and is an identical product to the “Sobrano” being used in Cuba. But for the time being, Mustafa Ghanei, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce, has said, Iran does not have the means to produce Pasto-Covac inside the country and must wait for imports from Cuba.

"There is a need for foreign currency to import it," Ghanei explained. "The equipment needed to run a [vaccine] production line, from the beginning of the chain, has been purchased, but because the raw materials for Pasto-Covac are supplied by Cuba, foreign currency is required.”

The Ministry of Health recommended has advised Iranians to mix and match vaccines in order to get a booster shot faster. This has led to some people having to accept traditional vaccines rather than the MRNA-based ones they received the first time around. Meanwhile, the head of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s medical team, Alireza Marandi, has announced that Khamenei chose the Barekat jab for his third dose. Reports received by IranWire indicate that citizens are not always being asked about pre-existing health conditions before receiving the third jab.

Official Coronavirus Statistics

According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 1,126 patients are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending February 17. With 185 deaths, February 16 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.


Omicron in Iran: "We're Burying Our Heads in the Sand"

At the week’s end, 3,760 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 138,676,406.


Omicron in Iran: "We're Burying Our Heads in the Sand"

There are currently 247 Iranian cities on red alert for coronavirus transmission. Another 112 are rated orange and 89 are yellow. Currently no cities in Iran are on “blue” alert.

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